The Shifting Shapes of Solar Farms

They’re more than just massive fields of black panels

mickey solar
A satellite photo of an almost-finished solar farm near Walt Disney World in Orlando reveals a familiar face. Image Courtesy of NearMap.com

In just a few weeks, the world’s largest floating solar power farm will power up in the United Kingdom. Situated in a manmade lake just outside of London, a system of 23,000 solar panels will provide enough energy to power water treatment plants in the region, providing clean drinking water to as many as 10 million people in London and its surroundings, Fiona Harvey reports for The Guardian.

“This will be the biggest floating solar farm in the world for a time—others are under construction,” Angus Berry, energy manager for the solar farm’s owner, Thames Water, tells Harvey. “We are leading the way, but we hope that others will follow.”

While the phrase “solar farm” might conjure up the image of fields of solar panels on pylons sitting in rows, these power plants are taking on a wide variety of shapes and designs to match the local landscape. Solar panels are a versatile medium and can be adapted in many ways for the most efficient energy production.

Here are just a few examples of some interesting takes on the solar farm:

Take to the Water

(Thames Water)

The solar farm covers about a tenth of the Queen Elizabeth II reservoir near Heathrow Airport, and unlike some other designs won’t stick out like a sore thumb.

The pictured panels are just a few of this large solar farm. When finished, the floating solar panel array will generate about 6.3 megawatts of electricity—enough to power about 1,800 homes. However, Thames Water will use that energy to power water treatment plants that service London and parts of southeastern England, Harvey reports.

QEII won’t be the biggest floating solar farm for long. Kyocera is currently building one twice it’s size in a reservoir in Japan’s Chiba prefecture as part of a drive to replace the infamous Fukushima nuclear power plant with floating solar farms. But while these plants may work for countries like Japan with minimal land available, U.K.-based solar advisor Ray Noble says they won’t replace land-based plants any time soon, Adam Vaughan reports for The Guardian.

“If you’re short on land like they are in Japan, you could build on water,” Noble tells Vaughan. “But in the UK with plenty of industrialized areas, it’s cheaper to put solar on land than on water.”

Mickey Mouse

Others have taken a more playful approach: satellite images of a 5-megawatt facility being built near Walt Disney World outside of Orlando, Florida show that its shape is inspired by Mickey Mouse’s iconic outline, Laura Sanicola reports for CNBC

Curvaceous Energy

The Noor I is what's known as a solar thermal power plant. The system is made up of 500,000 40-foot-tall curved mirrors that focus the Saharan sun on pipelines filled with fluid. Under the solar rays, the fluid (which can reach up to 739 degrees Fahrenheit) heats up a nearby water source, creating steam that powers turbines and generates enough power to provide electricity to 650,000 people, Loren Grush writes for The Verge.

Living in the Future

Still others solar farms look like futuristic desert settlements, with fields of solar panels arrayed around centralized towers.

Like the Noor I, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System is actually a solar thermal power plant, capturing solar energy as heat to produce steam to move a turbine. Located 40 miles southwest of Las Vegas in California's Mojave Desert, solar farm is expected to supply 392 megawatts of electricity.

Solar Golf Course

As Japan's economy boomed during the 1980s, so did golf. Courses sprung up all over Japan, but when the economy collapsed in the late '90s, many of them were closed and abandoned as their clients disappeared and upkeep became too costly. Now Kyocera, a Japanese power company, is looking to take advantage of some of these abandoned golf courses by transforming them into solar farms, Doug Bolton wrote for The Independent.

The image above is an illustration of Kyocera's planned 92-megawatt solar power farm in Japan's Kagoshima Prefecture. The Kanoya Osaka Solar Hills Power Plant will be built at a site where a golf course was planned, but never finished.

Rolling in Energy

While many solar farms are found in flat, open spaces, one in southern France conforms to the rolling hills. The Les Mees solar farm in Provence, France covers almost 89 acres of the region's rolling hills while providing 18.2 megawatts of electricity to surrounding towns.